Blues hall of famer Benny Latimore calls Riverview home but never takes the stage here

Known to fans as Latimore, the Blues Hall-of-Famer lives, but doesn't perform, in Riverview.
Benny Latimore was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame under his stage name. SUZANNE WILLIAMSON   |   Special to the Times
Benny Latimore was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame under his stage name.SUZANNE WILLIAMSON | Special to the Times
Published May 25 2017
Updated May 25 2017

RIVERVIEW — "I don't gig around,'' says Benny Latimore.

Meaning: This soul singer and keyboard player, who goes by his last name, doesn't perform where he lives.

"When I come home I want to be home,'' Latimore explains. The residence that is not his place of business is in Riverview, where he and his wife, Yvonne, have lived for almost seven years. "I keep my personal life separate from show business and that's how I've been able to stay in it so long.''

He's been in show business almost 60 years as a professional musician, producing 20 or more albums and 15 singles that made Billboard magazine's R&B sales chart. Latimore's baritone timbre helped make his composition Let's Straighten It Out a No. 1 hit in 1974, and it still gets radio airplay. Another of his enduring songs, Move and Groove Together, released in 1968, was recently heard on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black.

At 77, Latimore still is in demand, playing concerts and festivals. But his preference for an inconspicuous home life may make him the highest-achieving, lowest-profile musical artist in the Tampa Bay area.

This month, the road took him, Yvonne and their daughter Bianca to Memphis for his induction into the Blues Hall of Fame. "The Blues Foundation was thrilled to honor this soulful singer who continues to make inspirational music,'' said Barbara B. Newman, president and chief executive officer.

The nonprofit foundation hailed Latimore as an elder statesman and "love philosopher," a description likely based on Let's Straighten It Out, which begins: "Sit yourself down, girl, and talk to me; tell me what's on your mind,'' and soon moves to: "You and me oughta be gettin' it on.''

Latimore stood at the podium in the Halloran Centre for Performing Arts in his show-biz persona, including a cream-colored suit and his signature G-clef-shaped earring. Thanking the foundation and his fans, Latimore said, "It's very gratifying to realize that someone, somewhere, appreciates what you do.''

• • •

"I still love to perform," he says. "Of course I want to get paid for that, but being onstage is part of the pay. The travel, the logistics — that's the work. There are a lot of peaks and valleys in this business, but for me the peaks are satisfying enough to let me survive the valleys.''

Hold up a minute, though: Fans who know his highly produced 1970s work on Miami's Glades label, or hear his singing today on Quiet Storm radio, think of him as a soul man. Where does this blues adulation come from? Only one of his chart hits — an up-tempo version of Stormy Monday — used the three-chord blues progression.

On the flip side, Lat, as some colleagues call him, has covered blues great B.B. King, and written his own rueful minor-key tunes. Timmy Thomas, who played keyboards alongside Latimore's piano on many Miami sessions, is a formally trained musician, unlike Latimore, who knows chords but never felt the need to read musical notation.

Their two approaches "blended very well together'' on cuts by Betty Wright and others, Thomas says, adding: "Latimore is bluesier than I am.''

Newman, of the Blues Foundation, says, "Latimore connects listeners to blues through soul. He is able to synthesize the two distinct forms into something uniquely special.''

Yvonne Latimore concurs, calling her husband and his music "the bridge between the rhythm and the blues.'' They use the phrase on his business cards.

The artist calls himself "more of a soul singer who can also sing the blues.'' Latimore's been crossing so-called musical boundaries all his life.

Growing up in east Tennessee, he sang in church and listened to country music — called hillbilly music back then — and made extra money as a student at Tennessee State singing on country demos for Nashville labels.

"Yeah, I had the accent to do it,'' he says with a laugh. "We all sound alike right there.'' So he's got gospel and country in him as well. The only genre he rejected outright shows up in the title of his 1979 single, Discoed to Death.

• • •

Latimore extends his range on a soon-to-be released album, a collection of standards, including What a Difference a Day Makes and Cry Me a River. He's even done a bolero from 1959 as the album's title song, Sabor a Mí, which he translates as A Taste of Me.

That Spanish influence probably comes from Yvonne, whom Latimore thanked in Memphis as "my wife of 46 years.'' She's a Tampa native, born Yvonne Fernandez in Ybor City; her people come from Asturias in northwest Spain. The couple lived in Miami and Fort Pierce before settling in Riverview, in large part because she has family here. "We also wanted a bit of property,'' she says; they have 2.5 acres.

"I like it quiet,'' Latimore says.

Days after coming back from Memphis, he was relaxing around the screened-in pool in his shorts and red Bucs shirt.

"When I come home from performing, it's like taking off a pair of pants and throwing them over in the corner. Then, when I get my juices flowing and I want to go out on the road again, I just put those pants back on.''

John Capouya teaches journalism and nonfiction writing at the University of Tampa. His new book, Florida Soul: From Ray Charles to KC and the Sunshine Band, will be published in September.